Six Degrees of Separation is a relatively recent darling of the popular culture. The fundamental thinking here is trying to make some connection between all of us, past and present. You are breathing the same air that Christ breathed (Wow), sharing the same atmosphere with Hitler (Ouch), drinking the same water that Elvis Presley bathed in. (Yuck) Anyway, you get the drift. We’re all in this together, and always have been.
About twenty years ago I was in Macau and Hong Kong on business. While there my wife and I decided to take a bus tour into a then relatively remote area of China. We were heading to Guangzhou, which was an emerging economic free zone in communist China’s master plan for development. Today it’s a major centre with high rises and factories and busy little Chinese bees out doing their capitalistic best, for the common good I’m sure. Anyway, back then let’s just say the bamboo skeleton for financial success was beginning to take shape.
I remember the landscape from the bus window as being flat, like our prairies, with swaying grain fields and pastures listlessly rolling out to the horizon. It was actually quite thrilling for us to be seeing a small corner of this previously forbidden place. I envisioned Mau and his ragtag band of comrades hoofing it from village to village, gaining the peasant support that would topple the old political order from that day forth. Alas, everything was hunky dory until the bus lurched to a rattling, gear grinding stop on a desolate stretch of two lane blacktop just outside of a small village somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We were stuck, for how long no one knew. My attitude remained optimistic.
My wife and I wandered down the road a few hundred meters into the small cluster of earthen huts, rutted clay roadways, and innumerable pig sties and chicken runs. The local people scurried here and there always a safe distance in front of us, peeking back over their shoulders at the alien beings invading their humble setting. Little kids, always the bravest, ventured closer, then darted for cover giddy with fear. We roamed for awhile gawking, as respectfully as tourists ever can, at these people and their lives. I whispered to my wife that we may be some of the first westerners these rural folks had ever laid eyes on. No sooner were these words out of my mouth than a small, wizened woman the size and shape of a chimpanzee emerged from the doorway of her hut and motioned for us to come forward. We smiled and reluctantly obeyed. It’s funny how defensive we big city sophisticates are when traveling in remote foreign places. Human kindness can be very easily suspected as being nothing more than a clever con. More than one gullible tourist has never been seen or heard from again. This tiny, sixty pound relic coaxing us ever closer, could suddenly straighten her hunched back and hurl herself at us with all of the dagger wielding menace of a ninja warrior. Anyway, we hesitantly bent down and entered through her darkened doorway. The room had a dirt floor with an open fire pit in the center. The ceiling was low so that we had to stoop when inside. Quick as a spider the old woman scuttled through the dim space to an adjoining room. She motioned for us to follow. It was her cramped, musty bedchamber. A rough plank pallet was on the floor with straw bedding. Once inside she pointed to a large framed photograph stuck with wooden pegs into the mud of the wall. Several ornamental candles were lit on either side giving the picture a temple like ambience. I have seen such reverential alters before depicting Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper, or Buddha sitting in cross legged meditation on some serene mountain top.
“Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.” She cackled with a religious zealot’s delight, her two yellow teeth flashing like ivory tusks in the candlelight.
The photograph was of her sitting on Michael Jackson’s knee. They were seated in this same hut, not five feet from where we now stood. He was wearing his usual mock military garb replete with epaulets, sequined gloves and large orbital mirrored sunglasses. Both he and the old lady were beaming with big, open smiles. (I must admit they were cute together, like children playing dress up.)
Soon the bus driver came through the village calling everyone back to the vehicle. My wife and I thanked the woman and left the room. The rest of the bus ride was uneventful. After all, how could anything compare to that hut and that old woman’s shrine? We had come within one degree of separation from Michael Jackson, and we weren’t standing in a throng of people at a concert, or rubber necking in front of a courtroom throughout his legal wrangling, or rummaging like feasting paparazzi through a garbage pail or laundry bin outside of his hotel suite. It was an actual private moment. He with his, my wife and I with ours. Same place, different times.
One question still taunts me to this day. How the hell did Michael Jackson ever end up in that hut with her sitting on his knee? (I don’t think his bus broke down.)